With a record 13 Tour of California stage wins and one overall title to his credit, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) has earned the "King of California" moniker that gets tossed around every May when the pro peloton traverses the Golden State.
Following his 2015 overall win, the king is back in California hoping to defend his throne, but the odds are stacked against him as the race has put together what is one of the the hardest editions yet.
The looming mountains on stage 3 and again on stage 5 could derail Sagan's plans, but the often-times laid-back world champion is taking it all in stride, soaking up the California sunshine and making plans for surf lessons ahead of Sunday's race start.
"I like America and I like to ride here," Sagan said Friday at the pre-race press conference at the San Diego Yacht Club. "It's always good weather, at least since I've been coming here. It's good preparation, good people and a good race."
Sagan surprised nearly everyone last year when he won the overall title by just three seconds with a time bonus on the final day's sprint. He earned the win the day before, ironically, when he lost the race lead to Julian Alaphilipppe on the climb to Mt. Baldy – but kept his overall chances alive by finishing sixth and losing just 47 seconds, remaining within striking distance of the young Frenchman.
Sagan's performance on Mt. Baldy was surprising, even for himself, and he admitted on Friday that a repeat of his 2015 overall win probably isn't in the cards.
"I tried to do my best on the climb and I did it," he said of his Mt. Baldy effort. "I think this year it's much more climbing. It's better maybe to just try and win some stages.
"Last year when I came to the Tour of California if you told me I was going to win I would say you are crazy. This year is the same for me. I did not prepare for the GC this year, so we will see what happens."
Sagan's approach to this year's race is strikingly different than it was in 2015, when he came to California without having won a race for his new team, and under daunting pressure from team owner Oleg Tinkov.
Since then he's won the green jersey in the Tour de France and the world championship road race in Richmond, then adding Gent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders to his palmares earlier this year. After finishing 11th at Paris-Roubaix, Sagan took a break from competition and prepared for California in a most unusual way.
"I did two races on the mountain bike," he said. "One I didn't finish because I crashed, and one I was fourth. I had a flat tire. It was just to try it and to have fun."
Sagan looked relaxed and confident Friday in San Diego, his increasingly long hair often falling over his eyes as he fielded questions from the media. When asked if it was harder to relax in the rainbow stripes, however, the 26-year-old Slovakian had a succinct answer.
"Yeah. Yeah," he said, taking time to contemplate the question before emphasising his point a second time. "But tomorrow we go surf, right?"
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.
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